I know, I know. South Park can be divisive, and for good reason. It’s a problematic fave if I’ve ever seen one—just go back and try to watch its earlier seasons and there is sure to be a joke that is cringe-worthy at best, or more likely completely out of touch with our sensibilities now.
I’ll maintain that the South Park Movie and Imaginationland hold up, but…there’s also no denying what the show started as, and how back when I was in high school, it was unquestionably the darling of the ‘dude bro’ crowd (for lack of a more erudite way of putting it). You know what I mean: it’s the show with the goddamn “scissor me timbers” joke from Mrs. Garrison, the subject of multiple seasons of transphobic humor.
However, something shifted over time. It was a gradual, but South Park evolved into a show that seemed to acknowledge its own flaws and worked to consciously correct its former narrative. Season arcs took form, and by the time “The Cissy” aired, it was reasonable to wonder if this was even the same creative team that brought us “D-Yikes” in the first place. For the past couple of years, showrunners Parker and Stone have been even more unabashed in their almost stunningly progressive narrative—from their thorough condemnation of neoliberalism to their attack on internet trolls.
This isn’t to say South Park is The Bold Type or anything, and there’s certainly still missteps, especially given that every point is made with about three levels of irony and requires the audience to have a healthy understanding of depiction vs. endorsement. Some times it’s successful and others, it falls short. It’s for that reason I begin every season a little bit apprehensive; what if I’ve been wrong about Parker and Stone? What if Season 19 was supposed to be sticking it to the “SJW’s” and not the way inclusitivity can be co-opted and weaponized? What if they don’t know how to write for the Trump-era?
Really what I’m asking: what if they finally cross some line where I can’t enjoy this show anymore?
Well, I didn’t exactly breathe easy with Wednesday’s Season 21 opener “White People Renovating Houses,” because I was laughing too damn hard to breathe much at all. However, the important part is that my perhaps bizarrely-placed trust in Parker and Stone is still intact. This episode was one of the least subtle attacks on white entitlement I’ve seen in a while, though delivered with that usual Always Sunny-style of “oh god, it’s just so horrible.” I mean that as a compliment…these are the shows that age well, folks! There was continuity tied in from last year, and from what I can tell, the set-up is nothing but promising, especially without a mid-season wrench of an unexpected election outcome, which plagued the plotting last year.
There were two distinct plot threads this week, separated by the kids and the adults. On the latter side, the town-designated ‘rednecks’ of “they terk er jerbs” fame are growing more and more unsettled with increased automation…well, taking their jobs. Their main source of economic anxiety: Alexa, the voice-activated Google Home assistant (as well as all Siri and Amazon counterparts). This spills over when the group, lead by Darryl, take to the streets carrying tiki torches and Confederate flags, chanting “you will not replace us!”
Look, I’m jewish. I don’t really need reminders of the very literal nazis outside our doors, and it tends to piss me off when media throws it in to try and spice up some narrative, or as a shorthand for evil. A worse show than South Park would have left the joke at that: perhaps at best calling attention to the sheer ridiculousness of how “economic anxiety” has been a shield that white supremacists hide behind.
However Parker & Stone went much further. Because just down the street of this protest, Randy and Sharon are trying to be “part of the solution” to “the hurting in our country” that’s been going on lately. They’ve started an HGTV show called “White People Renovating Houses.”
Naturally, given that their brand is ‘white,’ having a bunch of white people yelling about not being replaced and waving the Confederate Flag every time someone needs their soup cooled off (this is a thing that literally happens) is going to be damaging. In fact, Randy even tries to sue Darryl and his gang for making them “all look like assholes” so that he can go back to his all-important task of knocking down interior walls for an open space concept in houses that don’t particularly need anything.
At one point, Randy’s solution is to gather up all the Alexas in town and get Darryl’s gang jobs as the in-home assistants, but Darryl finds it undignified, and storms out in a hate speech-filled meltdown. It’s then that Randy realizes what Darryl truly needs is for his interior wall to be knocked down, so that he can enjoy the same open space concept in his house. Coal miners and truck drivers may be getting replaced, but just look at this floor plan:
To be perfectly honest, I think this landed so well for me for a very specific and personal reason. You see, I live in a battleground county of a battleground state. We used to have CNN on our breakroom TV at all times, but starting last summer, things were getting so politically charged that one of our admins changed the channel to HGTV. It’s been like that ever since. And holy shit, is that filled with nothing but programs about white people flipping houses. What’s especially great is all they ever do is knock down an interior wall for an “open space concept.”
Having the nazi thread tied into Randy on one of these shows felt so perfect, because it was marrying the thought I’ve always had every time I passed that stupid TV: white people just don’t want to deal with the inconvenience of the racial tensions in our country. We don’t want to be upset by the facts, or have to think about nazis in our workplace, and why should we when we can instead look at this four-year-old who they’ve let swing the sledgehammer?
South Park makes it clear that Darryl’s racism and the Confederate flag-waving is not at all a reasonable reaction to worries about job security. At the same time, it’s equally clear that Randy is once again trying to “do good” in a way that’s entirely superficial—just like how he treated the Whole Foods moving into town. It’s a swipe at Tina Fey’s “stay home and eat cake” mentality that is far too common a response, and one that manages to point out how such an attitude is specifically one of white privilege.
Still, it was other plotline that really hit home for me.
Last year, Cartman began dating Heidi after supposedly turning over a new leaf and, you know…giving a shit about people. He’d insist women were funny and seemed to be an advocate for Heidi, until she began to assert intellect and agency beyond what he specifically wanted. They ended the season still together (she seemed unaware of his growing worries), and began this year the same way. However, out of the gate Cartman was passive aggressive with her.
Throughout the episode, their fights were intercut with Cartman’s increasing satisfaction with Alexa—the “woman” who would listen to him unquestionably. Heidi, on the other hand, outright challenged him. When he tried to say nothing was going on, she told him that he needed to be able to talk about his feelings and it wasn’t healthy to do otherwise. When he tried to get their relationship back on track by basically faking an apology in saying “it’s all my fault and I’ll just try not to make you angry,” she called him out on his bullshit guilt-trip and explained how relationships had to be 50-50 and communicative. When Cartman got frustrated by this and told her “silence!”, she got appropriately angry, and literally said:
“You want to be heard, but you don’t want to listen.”
Cartman’s response to all of this is, of course, horrible. His infatuation with Alexa grows, to the point where he asks questions such as “what does subservience mean?” and ultimately “what is love?”, while simultaneously telling his friends that Heidi is emotionally abusive for daring to behave in ways he doesn’t expect and aren’t convenient.
What was truly affecting for me was that even though it’s made clear that Cartman’s behavior is not acceptable or healthy, Heidi eventually shows up at his house to give in. She tells his mom (Cartman won’t come to the door) that it’s not 50-50 but 100-100, and she’s going to “give 100% every day” and “try a lot harder.”
It’s not that I wanted this for Heidi, of course. It’s almost difficult to watch. However, South Park goes to length through its score and Cartman’s mother’s reaction that this isn’t something good, but rather self-degrading. And the most painful part? Strikingly emotionally realistic. I’ve known many women in Heidi’s position who have done just that, and even on occasion been Heidi myself. At least for once a spotlight is shined on how messed up it is that women are always asked to swallow their emotions for the benefit of male comfort, instead of it being romanticized.
Their relationship ends at the close of the episode, and even though this note, along with Darryl’s home makeover, were conclusive, I don’t see either thread disappearing there. I have no clue where South Park will take it, but the fact that the entire episode took completely unsubtle aim at entitlement—both white and male—at least makes me feel as though we’re in good hands for the rest of the season.
Alexa, what is love?